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Expanding Access to Research Data: Reconciling Risks and Opportunities
compliance with security procedures. Most license agreements include severe criminal penalties for confidentiality violations.
License agreements are not available in agencies with existing legislation that places more demanding restrictions on confidential data. The Census Bureau, for example, remains constrained by legislation that restricts access to individual records to sworn officers and employees. Licensing conditions vary from agency to agency, as does the duration of the license agreements. Penalties for violating license agreements are uniformly severe, but the procedures for monitoring the performance of licensees and detecting and taking appropriate action against violations are weak (Seastrom, Wright, and Melnicki, 2003). Audits of data protection protocols have found violations due largely to carelessness; they have not found any actual breaches of confidentiality.
MEETING THE CHALLENGES
The panel’s report points to a number of serious challenges at the interface of confidentiality and data access. It places a high value on protecting confidentiality. It also takes seriously the responsibility to assure that the nation’s robust research and policy analysis infrastructure has sufficient access to microdata so that it can provide intelligent analysis of social and economic conditions and of the effect of policies designed to improve them.
Although it is easy to agree with the Jeffersonian principle that absent an informed public there is no democracy, it is equally easy to agree with the late Senator Moynihan, who famously justified his vote rejecting Robert Bork for the Supreme Court: “I cannot vote for a jurist who simply cannot find in the Constitution a general right to privacy …” But the Jeffersonian public that needs to be informed is the same public that must supply answers to questions sometimes viewed as infringing on privacy and must be assured that answers given are confidential.
The panel finds in history the warrant for asserting that there are ways to move forward without sacrifice to either the value the nation places on privacy and confidentiality or the value it finds in a data-rich democracy. Statistical agencies, working closely with scholars, have for more than 40 years simultaneously improved the technologies that protect confidentiality and the modalities that provide appropriate access to microdata. Even as some methods are applied to decrease disclosure risk, others have been designed to improve access under carefully controlled conditions.
In response to increased public concerns about privacy and confidentiality and developments in information technology and data availability in the past decade, the statistical and research communities responded quickly with new methods for restricted access modes and restricted data